W. R. Peltier

2010 Charles A. Whitten Medal Winner

Department of Physics, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

W. Richard Peltier was awarded the 2010 Charles A. Whitten Medal at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 15 December 2010 in San Francisco, Calif. The medal is for “outstanding achievement in research on the form and dynamics of the Earth and planets.”


It is a pleasure and an honor to nominate W. Richard (Dick) Peltier for the AGU Charles A. Whitten Medal, which is awarded for outstanding achievement in research on the form and dynamics of the Earth. Dick is an eminent research scholar who has had, and continues to have, a very active, prolific, and creative career, with over 280 refereed publications. He is recognized as one of the most highly cited Earth scientists in the world. His interests are very broad; what is so impressive is that he is so excellent in all of them.

Dick has pioneered work on glacial isostatic adjustments, the associated Maxwell viscoelastic Earth theory, and postglacial relative sea level change. He has made major contributions both to the development of models of Ice Age ice sheet thickness distribution and of corresponding planetary paleotopographies, and to the dynamic mantle response to loading and unloading from the ice sheets. Dick’s work is clearly at the forefront of all these areas; his contributions have been enormous. His models are used widely and are considered by many to be the standard. His current model ICE 5G (VM2) has been independently verified by the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (­GRACE). This problem has high societal relevance currently because of the rebound and subsistence that affect the interpretation of sea level observations.

Dick started his career as an atmospheric scientist and has done extensive work in geophysical fluid dynamics. One of his fortes is the “breaking” of internal waves in the atmospheric jet stream and in the ocean’s boundary currents. It is interesting to note “On the possible detection of tsunamis by a monitoring of the ionosphere,” the 1976 paper by Dick and C. O. Hines (J. Geophys. Res., 81(12), 1995–2000) that examined the concept of using ionospheric disturbances to detect tsunamis. Today, after the Sumatra earthquake and more than 30 years after this paper, this is an active area, especially with Global Positioning System (GPS) technology. Peltier and Hines were certainly ahead of their time.

Dick’s achievements have been recognized by a number of distinctions and awards. A brief but incomplete list includes AGU Fellow, American Meteorological Society Fellow, Sloan Foundation Fellow, Bower Award and Prize for Achievement in Science of the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia (2010), J. Tuzo Wilson Medal of the Canadian Geophysical Union, Patterson Medal of the Atmospheric Environment Service of Canada, Killiam Fellow, Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, Guggenheim Foundation Fellow, and a D.Sc. (honoris causa) from the University of Waterloo. In addition, Dick has mentored numerous Ph.D. students and postdocs who have carried forward his research and have enlarged his effectiveness and influence. Dick has been generous with his time, serving on numerous committees for the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics (IUGG), the National Research Council (NRC), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and others, and acting as an editor for many journals, books, and other publications.

Dick Peltier is a true pioneer in the geophysics community and richly deserves the Whitten Medal. His achievements in research on the dynamics of the Earth and planets are remarkable; his name would add luster to the fine list of previous recipients and truly enhance the prestige of the medal itself.

—JEAN O’BRIEN DICKEY, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena


Thank you, Jean, for the effort you’ve invested in nominating me for this honor. I note that the first recipient of this medal, following Charles Whitten himself, was Bill Kaula, a fact that makes this occasion especially meaningful to me, as Bill was a good friend who was very encouraging of my scientific efforts early in my career. My wife, Claude, and I enjoyed many good times with Bill and his wife, Gene, as guests in their home in Los Angeles and at a number of international meetings.

When a nice thing like this happens, it presents an opportunity to reflect on the reasons for one’s good fortune. Jean Dickey has mentioned Colin Hines, my doctoral thesis advisor, in her remarks, and I’m very glad of the opportunity to record my indebtedness to him for the example he set for a young person beginning to work in the area of the geophysical sciences. I was very lucky to have as a role model a person of Colin’s intellect. He and his wife, Bernice, have remained close and valued friends for over 40 years.

I began to develop the theoretical models of the glacial isostatic adjustment (GIA) process, which forms the primary focus of Jean’s nomination, during a postdoctoral fellowship at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Colin had organized a visiting fellowship for me in CIRES that I was able to take up in the year following completion of my doctoral degree. During the first year I spent in Boulder, to be followed by several subsequent summers, I had the very good fortune to be befriended by W. E. (Bill) Farrell and his wife, Mary, who, as I recall, more or less adopted me! Bill had only a short time earlier completed his own doctoral degree with Freeman Gilbert at the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics (IGPP) at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

It was Bill who, aside from introducing me to the glories of extreme cycling in the Colorado mountains, suggested that I might be interested in trying to build a theory of the GIA process using as a basis the work he had completed on the mathematically similar elastic problem of ocean tidal loading. This eventually led to the detailed gravitationally self-consistent viscoelastic theory for ice-Earth-ocean interactions that has proven to be key to the understanding of a wide range of problems in sea level history and the theory of the Late Quaternary ice ages themselves. I was attracted to begin working on this problem, as my doctoral thesis involved theoretical work on the mantle convection process, and analysis of the phenomenology of glacial isostasy provided one of the few means of getting at the issue of mantle viscosity, which is key to understanding this process. The theory that I have developed is now playing an important role in the general area of global change research, specifically in connection to understanding the global sea level rise that is occurring as a consequence of global warming.

I’ve spent my entire career in the physics department of the University of Toronto, aside from sabbaticals at Cambridge University, the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, and the Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris. At Toronto I continue to be very fortunate to work with a number of gifted young scientists who have contributed greatly over the years to my own understanding of a wide range of geophysical processes.

This is not the first time I have been a beneficiary of the open and supportive nature of the American scientific community, and I continue to highly value my membership in it through this Union. I thank the Whitten Medal Committee of AGU for honoring my work in this way.

—W. R. PELTIER, Department of Physics, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada